Taking our lumps
If you like news, you loved last week. Let's see. FleetBoston disappeared into the craw of Bank of America. Grady Little went bye-bye, and Manny Ramirez woke up on waivers. Boston University secured its position as the O.K. Corral of higher education with the decision by the board last Friday to render outgoing its incoming president, Daniel S. Goldin, the day before he was to take over.
(I am reminded, regarding Manny and Goldin, of the title of actor Charles Grodin's autobiography: "It Would Be So Nice If You Weren't Here.")
Stay with me now. Putnam Investments, a chronic skater of underachievement, fell into black water for the alleged illegal market-timing of some fund managers. Throw in the recent sale of John Hancock and the departure of Antoine Walker from the Celtics, and our cup runneth over.
Where to start? I know we're supposed to mourn FleetBoston's demise for all of the obvious reasons, but it's hard. Banks compare unfavorably with in-laws, and Fleet's customer service, by most accounts, rivaled AT&T Wireless for sheer awfulness. Granted, the place has been a strong corporate citizen under Chad Gifford, but Fleet's only real claim to fame is that it's local, an accident of birth, like the extinct Brahmin.
Homeboy Louis Brandeis would have fought to keep Fleet alive, notes James O. Freedman, president emeritus of Dartmouth. The great Supreme Court jurist spent his life battling large concentrations of wealth.
"Brandeis was probably the greatest lawyer ever to practice law in Boston, with the possible exception of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.," says Freedman. "And he was one of the intellectual theorists behind antitrust laws. He believed that local was a better scale."
And yet Bank of America rules today. I leave it to others to sort out the bottom line of these logo upheavals, but as the savants say, that such reversals will be visited upon us in life is a given. The only remotely interesting thing is how we handle it.
I'm far more attentive, then, to the way we as a city react to the untoward. How do we digest it and then exploit it? Our success with such challenges will determine how we feel about ourselves and how others view us. And who in the process will emerge as new leaders? We're due for a new crop, in and out of government.
Take the FleetBoston situation. How do we become the best branch bankers on record? Where do we find new jobs to balance the losses anticipated at Hancock and Fleet? Try Harvard's massive expansion into Allston, for starters. And there will be other big plays in Boston down the road.
Decades ago, economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the bloodless term "creative destruction" to describe the brutal rise and fall of industries.
It happened in these parts with textiles and shoes to disastrous effect. No one's talking about creative destruction here. Neither banking nor insurance is going away. There is no cause for psychotic episodes.
Boston is just where it should be -- in the fray. When you're in the fray, you're going to take a punch. Remind me again what city doesn't?
Not New York. It loses plenty, and not just to my newest best friends, the Florida Marlins. It faces a chronic, enervating battle to retain its corporate headquarters, particularly after 9/11. Its finances are bloodcurdling and its school system a mess. Philadelphia? The feds are wiretapping its government for possible corruption. The city would kill for a fraction of our robust array of smart industries. LA? Surely you jest. Half of its citizens are trying to secede.
Boston, in contrast, is doing fine. We're just assuming our proper role as what critic Richard Eder once called "America's premier parochial city."
We're not an imperial city. Never have been, never will be. That Boston, with a population about half the size of San Antonio, need be festooned with corporate headquarters to maintain its sense of self is as absurd.
But on to yeastier stuff. For sheer drama, nothing could touch the Kabuki theater at BU. There exists no death star that could damage the institution as badly as its board has. That body has displayed a severe shortage of testicular fortitude during the reign and subsequent chancellorship of John Silber, who appointed its members much as Pope John Paul II packed the College of Cardinals. But its latest performance warrants intense rehab at the trustee equivalent of Betty Ford, already crowded with counterparts from Disney and others.
Over at Fenway, Grady's anticipated departure triggered a predictable rash of navel-gazing about the Boston temperament. (We have anger issues. They used to be considered charming.) And Manny floats in Mannyland after the rest of baseball passed on the remaining $95 million of his contract.
So he may return next spring to play for a team that doesn't want him. That would be almost worth the appalling new price of a ticket.
Boston, remember, is not a celebrity town. Our klieg light quotient approximates the dancer Nijinsky's assessment of his wife: "an untwinkling star." I want more weeks like this one. It gets the juices flowing and compensates for our celebrity deficit. You can't beat news.
Sam Allis can be reached at email@example.com.
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